Before March 24, Satpal Pal’s routine as a building security guard in Mumbai was simple: washing residents’ cars in the morning, keeping track of visitors entering the gate and unwinding at the end of a 12-hours shift in the tiny watchmen’s quarter at the back of the building compound. For this, he has been earning Rs 10,000 a month.

After March 24, however, the list of Pal’s duties has grown much longer.

“Since the lockdown started, we have to keep the gate closed all the time, make all delivery boys wait outside, give them sanitiser to clean their hands and guard all the delivered packages till the residents come and pick them up,” said Pal, 34, one of three watchman employed at a housing society in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb. “We also have to fumigate the entire compound every evening, which we used to do just once a week before the lockdown.”

For all this additional work, Pal has received a one-time bonus of Rs 3,000.

The Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24 – at just four hours’ notice – as an attempt to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus or Covid-19. With no transport services, no wages and starvation looming in sight, the lockdown forced lakhs of urban migrant workers to undertake desperate, dangerous journeys towards their villages, often on foot.

Thousands of security guards in Mumbai’s housing societies were among the few low-income workers who still had stable jobs, but some of them chose to join the migrant exodus out of the city. Pal, whose wife and children live in his village in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district, was among the many who chose to stay back.

Since then, watchmen like him have been dealing with a whole new set of responsibilities and anxieties at work.

“It is our job to protect everyone in the building from outsiders who might have corona, but we are constantly meeting outsiders ourselves,” said Pal. “It is scary, and I will go home as soon as I can.”

A few days ago, spoke to several watchmen in Mumbai – India’s biggest Covid-19 hotspot – and found similar stories of fear, growing workload and a shared desire to go back home.

Can’t cough on the job

For Sudhanshu Pandey, a 20-year-old security guard in Andheri’s Four Bungalows area, the most challenging part about work after the lockdown has been the need for constant vigilance.

“In this city, there’s no one to look out for people like us if we fall sick,” said Pandey, who is longing to go home to his mother in Satna, Madhya Pradesh. “If I catch a cold or start coughing, I will just be kicked out of this job, because people are so scared of the virus. So I am always trying to make sure that I don’t cough even lightly when building residents are around.”

Sudhanshu Pandey is terrified of catching the virus on the job. Photo: Aarefa Johari

Apart from making sure that no non-residents enter the building gates, Pandey’s new duties include making several trips to different residents’ homes to deliver packages left at the gates by e-commerce delivery staff. “Some residents come to the gate to pick up their own parcels, but for most others, we watchmen have to do the delivery.”

Pandey’s father also works as a watchman in a different part of Andheri, and once every fortnight, Pandey pays him a visit outside his gate. “Both of us are very scared of catching the virus, but we decided it is better to wait and take a train to Satna rather than walk for hundreds of kilometres,” he said.

On April 29, when the central government announced the Shramik Special trains to take migrant workers home, Pandey and his father promptly submitted their application form to the local police. They also submitted medical certificates to indicate that they had no Covid-19 symptoms, as is the requirement in Maharashtra. “Now we are just waiting for a call from the police to say we got a train. Once I leave, I am not coming back till everything is back to normal.”

Stuck in a different country

On the same street as Pandey, 27-year-old Ganesh Karki stood out as the only security guard without a uniform.

“That’s because I got this job after the lockdown, when the watchman who worked here left for his village,” said Karki, a tall, lean man wearing a white shirt, grey pants and a green cloth mask. “I also want to go home, but I am stuck here till my government evacuates me.”

Karki is referring to the government of Nepal, his home country, where he runs a dairy farm with his parents in the village of Parbat.

In mid-February, Karki undertook a three-day train journey from Parbat to Mumbai, full of excitement about his first trip to India and the prospect of holidaying for a few weeks with his older brother, an auto driver in Mumbai.

Ganesh Karki came to Mumbai for a holiday, but got stuck working as a guard. Credit: Aarefa Johari

On March 24, however, Karki’s brother lost his livelihood overnight, at a time when he had an extra mouth to feed. With no trains to take him back to Nepal, Karki took up the first temporary job he could get.

“I don’t mind doing guard work, but the building people don’t allow me to step out of the gate,” he said. “I have to stay here in the watchmen’s room, even though my brother’s house is not far from here.”

Karki has not been able to meet his brother since the lockdown began, and is dissatisfied with the Rs 9,000 salary he is paid. “In my country, even farming pays better than this.”

Karki has now put his name on a list of Nepalis from his region stuck in Mumbai. “If there are enough of us, my village leaders will arrange for transport to evacuate us,” he said. “I am just waiting to leave.”

‘I don’t run from the battlefield’

In sharp contrast to other watchmen in the area, 40-year-old Bharat Tiwari claimed he had no desire or plan to go back to his village in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh.

“I am a warrior. I don’t run from the battlefield,” he said grandly, referring to Mumbai’s high Covid-19 prevalence rates. “My wife and children are crying for me to come back and be safe in the village. But I am not afraid of this virus, and I don’t want my employers to think that I betrayed them and ran away.”

Bharat Tiwari is among the few security guards who do not wish to return to their villages. Credit: Aarefa Johari

Tiwari’s zeal for his work is surprising, considering he works 24-hour days in two shifts at two different housing societies. “I am good at my work – I manage to catch my sleep without anyone noticing when I do it,” he said.

One job pays Tiwari Rs 5,000 and the other pays Rs 6,000 – figures that have not changed for the past six years. “I have been appealing for a pay rise for many years, but what to do? They have not done it,” said Tiwari. “I also bought my own sanitiser recently because the building people will take five days to buy me one if I ask them.”

What, then, has prevented Tiwari from fleeing his jobs and trying to make his way home to his family?

“There are old women in these buildings who need my help,” said Tiwari promptly. “They cannot go out during the lockdown, so I have been going to buy vegetables and essentials for them.”